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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Ace's stuff is lively, as always

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There's part of an old song that reminds me of Pedro Martinez. I thought of it yesterday as the Red Sox pitcher sat in the shade, sometimes flashing his charm and sometimes telling his media enemies how much he dislikes them.

To paraphrase Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, if we don't know the 32-year-old Martinez by now, we will never ever know. This is his seventh spring training with the Red Sox, so none of us should be shocked by the contents of the entertaining package. And all of us should know what's coming in the 2004 season.

Martinez is going to make you laugh. He is going to offer an emphatic opinion or explanation that might infuriate you. He will repeat his comments about the media ("I don't like you guys," he said yesterday). He will go to his mental iPod and replay a list of slights from various sources.

He remembers one-lining local columnists, national beat writers who left him off their 1999 MVP ballots, doubting WEEI talk-show hosts and callers who -- in his view -- ripped him for being sick last season, anyone who refers to him as a "headhunter," and even the one shouting fan who caught his attention as he walked toward the dugout at Fenway.

There's something else you should know by now, too. Martinez is going to have a dynamic season. If you've followed the man's Hall of Fame career, a predicted great season is not exactly a high-wire statement. He's always good. Now he may have the motivation to be even better.

This is the last year of his contract, he said he feels as strong as he did when he was a kid, Curt Schilling is covering his back, and this is his first full season working with pitching coach Dave Wallace (who once saw a starter named Eric Gagne throw and decided that he should become a closer).

What's it going to be this time for Martinez? What other notable item is he going to place in his cart before he inevitably heads to the checkout line in Cooperstown?

He already has 166 wins. At 32, Hall of Famer Whitey Ford had eight fewer and Hall of Famer Lefty Grove had five more. He hasn't had an ERA over 3.00 since he was 24 and living in Montreal. He has five ERA titles and one second-place finish. He owns three Cy Youngs and has three other top-three finishes.

If you've been listening to him all this time, you understand that he also has the most pride of all New England pro athletes. Someone asked him if Schilling will push him, and he said he doesn't need an extra push. That's true. What he didn't say is that although he doesn't need the push, he'll have it anyway because that's just how he works.

He and Schilling were talking shop during a pickoff drill yesterday. It was like watching two valedictorians discussing the art of making straight A's. Martinez said the presence of Schilling gives the Sox two Pedros.

He thought about that statement for a moment and revised it.

"Three with [Derek] Lowe," he said.

Then he revised it again.

"Three and three-quarters with [Tim] Wakefield," he added.

But then he recalled how well Wakefield pitched in the postseason. "I probably have to say four or five," he said with a smile. "I trust any of those guys to do the job."

No matter what happened in October, he trusts himself as well. It is popular to say that he isn't the same pitcher he was five years ago, but it still takes a lot to beat him. In his last game, he was pitching well long after the opposing ace, Roger Clemens, was knocked out.

He said he was surprised when he was asked to keep going late, but he still tried to complete the job. Several minutes before saying that, he had said, "Game 7 is over. We lost it. We did what we could. We competed with a good team. They won. We lost."

It's really not that final for Martinez. You know that, right? He still remembers being cursed and criticized after his incident with Don Zimmer. He remembers pointing at his head after he argued with Jorge Posada in Spanish. He insists he was telling Posada he would never forget all that he said; critics said it was the threat of a baseball to the noggin.

He won't forget those verbal attacks, either.

This is Pedro Martinez in the last year of his contract at 32. He is very similar to the Pedro Martinez in the first year of his contract at 26. Defiant. Smart. Funny. Sensitive. Talented. Thoughtful. Stylish. Equipped with a computerized memory.

Last year he made a comment about his contract and he didn't like how it was relayed. So when he was asked about his contract this year, he aimed at diplomacy and picked up a few laughs along the way. He said his preference is to stay in Boston, but "if they don't want to sign me, that's fine. I'm pretty sure I'll probably get a job with somebody else."

If he leaves -- and he should not be allowed to leave -- he will have completed one of the best runs in modern baseball history. At some point this year, if healthy, he will win his 100th game with the Sox. He will pass Young on Boston's career strikeouts list. He will have a Boston winning percentage, remarkably, near 80.

He might miss a start. He might defend someone because he believes in them or simply because he senses that they need an ally. He will not publicly criticize a teammate. He will be baseball's best pitcher and one of its best showmen.

The names, plots, and calendars change. Martinez rarely does. When he's talking, the room is never dull. When he's pitching, all cameras should be in the ready position.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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